Board of inquiry process could take two years.
The Government really has no confidence in the Auckland Council. Before the council was formed most of its functions were put in the hands of subsidiaries, leaving the elected representatives to do little more than plan - and plan, and plan. Having produced the big 30-year Auckland Plan, the council is now obliged to produce a more detailed 10-year plan to be called the "unitary plan".
All told, it will also do annual plans, area plans, long-term plans, council strategies and oversee local board plans. But the unitary plan will be the Super City's equivalent of the familiar district plans that broadly indicate what can be done or built on land in different places. When complete, it will replace the regional and district plans of the previous councils.
The council wanted it to take effect as soon as it was notified (for submissions) but the Government has decided the public must have a chance to be heard first. It has imposed a hearing panel that will not have council appointees; it will be a board of inquiry chosen by the Ministers of the Environment and Conservation and chaired by a retired judge.
The panel can recommend changes and those the council accepts would come into force. The council can appeal to the Environment Court against recommended changes it does not like. A leading lawyer in resource consents, Paul Cavanagh QC, describes this set-up as a sad day for Auckland. He believes everyone would be better off with the usual right to appeal to the Environment Court rather than face a board of inquiry with rights of cross-examination.
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The Government wants haste, though not quite as much haste as the council hoped. An independent hearings panel is bound to need more time, and suggest more changes, than the council obviously envisaged when it suggested the plan take effect as soon as it was written, which it aims to have done by August next year. All going well, the board of inquiry and the council's appeals could take a further two years.
An independent panel might also be much less wedded to the council's aim to constrain most of the city's growth within existing urban limits and encourage higher density development close to public transport routes. It is important that Aucklanders get a chance to challenge this element, already enshrined in the 30-year document.
The more detailed unitary plan will have to try to apply the strategic plan to particular localities and, on all previous experience, it is bound to arouse intense local opposition. Milford on the North Shore is the latest locality to disappoint the "compact city" visionaries.
Milford has a flat landscape, it is well served by bus routes and not far from the northern busway. It is a perfect site for high-rise residential development that would not interfere with anyone's views of its nearby beach and sea. A developer has produced exactly that sort of plan for apartments above the carpark of Milford Mall - and the community detests it. Council planners applaud it but its chances of surviving objections look forlorn.
This time next year, when the draft unitary plan may be out and many other communities are contemplating what might be permitted, there could be a queue of objectors to the board of inquiry.
The Government will be an interested observer, especially as the costly central city rail loop is essential to the public transport arteries of the council's plans. The board of inquiry's view of the rail loop could be decisive.
The unitary plan is the one that matters most for the city's future. Auckland must get it right.